Assessing the White Sox’s late-season slowdown

The Chicago White Sox long ago clinched their first playoff berth in more than a decade. They have a possible MVP in José Abreu and a possible Rookie of the Year in Luis Robert. Tim Anderson still has a shot at back-to-back AL batting titles. They’re 34-22 with only four games left in the season before the playoffs start and still have a shot at the division title.

But this time last week, they didn’t have a shot at the division title. They were winning the division, up three games on the Minnesota Twins. The White Sox have lost their last four in a row, five of their last six and, be it in only a six-game sample size, have shown signs for concern that you don’t want to see a team possess as they head into the playoffs.

What’s happened in that time? For one, their starting pitching has taken a hit in the last seven days. White Sox starters have had the fifth-highest ERA in baseball of 5.70 since September 17. They’ve averaged 5.70 BB/9, second-highest in baseball, and have allowed baseball’s highest HR/9, of 3.00. Their patchwork rotation has shown the holes that were feared to be expected, with the back of the rotation coming undone in Jonathan Stiever’s start last Friday against Cincinnati and Dane Dunning’s start on Monday against Cleveland.

Dylan Cease had a tough outing Sunday against Cincinnati, when he allowed three runs in three innings and walked seven batters. While his surface-level numbers this year still look good (5-3 as a starter with a 3.52 ERA), there is reason to have doubt over sustaining his numbers in the postseason. Ben Clemens at Fangraphs laid out the oddity that has been Cease’s season and his luck of a solid ERA while having a high LOB% and low strikeout rate. He doesn’t miss bats the way one would expect with his fastball and has a 5.95 FIP. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel form one of the best one-two punches in baseball, and Keuchel has the postseason experience to bolster the duo. But how much the White Sox can trust Cease as a third starter in the playoffs is a question that may soon be answered, and the answer may not be ideal.

White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease

The White Sox have also fallen behind in runs over the past week, ranking 22nd in baseball in runs after being near the top for most of the season. Abreu has been the most consistent bat in the lineup, typically an expected outcome for an MVP-frontrunner, but the White Sox’ one-through-nine hasn’t performed the way they have for most of the season. They have the second-highest K% in baseball since last Thursday and have walked the seventh-least amount, with BB% of 7.8.

In the last week, Luis Robert has perhaps lost his lead to Kyle Lewis of the Seattle Mariners for Rookie of the Year, as he’s been held without a hit in his last 24 at-bats. One of the biggest sparkplugs of this lineup, his lack of production has been noticeable in the broader outcomes for the White Sox. James McCann is also on a hitless streak, his of 12 at-bats, and as someone who’s emerged as Giolito’s personal catcher, he’s still one to get at-bats. And while Tim Anderson looked like a lock to win the batting title at one point this year, he’s gotten only four hits in his last 25 at-bats and struck out seven times, not to mention the year Yoán Moncada’s had to forget, with only 93 wRC+. Abreu’s been the anchor of the lineup, and Eloy Jiménez has been productive for most of the year, but they will need more from their lineup overall than what they’ve gotten as of late.

White Sox centerfielder Luis Robert

This is not an attempt to throw cold water on the White Sox party. There are also reasons for optimism. The bullpen, already a strength for this team and whose key contributors have held up during this stretch, added this year’s first-round pick, Garrett Crochet, who sits at 100 MPH and has not allowed a run in four appearances. Reynaldo López has strung together three nice starts in a row and, if he continues this momentum, gives the Sox another starter option in the playoffs. And of course, José Abreu is José Abreu. All these negatives have been in a small sample size, so this could be just a blip on the radar.

But every great team hits a wall at a certain point in baseball and every young player, rookie or otherwise, hits their own individual wall. Typically, it’s sometime around the middle of the season, then contenders get back on track with a hot August or September. Well, the middle of the season, this year, happened in September. With what’s transpired over the last week, the White Sox have to hope that this isn’t that the typical mid-season slump isn’t happening as they head into the playoffs.